Reducing fuel consumption is a goal for every airline, with an emphasis on innovation. Ongoing research demonstrates the industry’s commitment to finding a viable solution.
Jet fuel is one of the largest line items in airline budgets. For passengers, its primary impact is on ticket prices and, as a result, their wallets.
Reducing fuel consumption is a goal for every airline, with an emphasis on innovation. This hit its peak in summer 2008 when fuel costs reached an all-time high of more than $130 per barrel. Initiatives include single-engine taxi, use of ground power and preconditioned air units instead of the on-board auxiliary power units, and weight reductions including eliminating or replacing food, beverage and other in-cabin equipment with lighter options.
Larger, more visible programs have added winglets to aircraft for increased fuel efficiency. New aircraft purchases are being made with fuel efficiency in mind. No stone is left unturned.
These initiatives are nothing new. Over the past three decades, passenger and cargo airlines have more than doubled fuel efficiency, according to the Air Transport Association of America (ATA).
A change to the Next Generation (NextGen) air traffic control system could provide additional fuel savings opportunities for airlines. The outdated system currently in use in the U.S. limits fuel efficiency gains by contributing to delayed and canceled flights. Flight routes often are indirect, which contributes to millions of gallons of extra fuel burn every day. The ATA cites reform of the air traffic control system as the single largest source of future gains in fuel conservation.
Even with these initiatives to reduce fuel consumption, many major airports have a throughput topping a million gallons per day. So how do we further reduce the dependency on hydrocarbon-based jet fuel?
U.S. airlines are actively engaged in the pursuit of alternative fuels through participation in the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). CAAFI seeks to enhance energy security and environmental sustainability for aviation through alternative fuels. It is a forum that focuses the efforts of the U.S. commercial aviation supply chain — including airlines, government, manufacturers, fuel suppliers, airports, universities and others involved in research, development and responsible implementation of alternative jet fuels — to engage and encourage potential suppliers.
CAAFI provides essential guidance for fuel development, with key criteria:
- Safety and fuel quality
- Environmental benefit
- Supply reliability
- Economic feasibility
Creating an alternative to jet fuel is more complex than other fuel types. Safety concerns carry more weight at 35,000 feet, so it must be tested at varying altitudes, pressures and temperatures. Any potential alternative jet fuel must meet American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) international standards. It must also be compatible and blend with standard commercial jet fuel to allow continued operation of existing, costly fuel storage and delivery systems at airports.
Successful tests of alternative jet fuels have been completed by the U.S. Air Force and several commercial carriers. They are based on different feedstocks, which could range from coal to algae. An alternative for commercial use may be available within a few years or up to a decade away, but the ongoing research demonstrates the industry’s commitment to finding a viable solution.